Dude, where’s my sign?

The light turned green several seconds ago, but Rami Tabello’s red Mini remains stopped at an intersection in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown district. The founder and coordinator of activist group Illegal Signs has spotted a re-erection of an illegal wall mural ordered removed by the city. “Ohhh, it’s back,” he says, oblivious to the “H-O-O-O-O-N-K!!” of […]

The light turned green several seconds ago, but Rami Tabello’s red Mini remains stopped at an intersection in downtown Toronto’s Chinatown district. The founder and coordinator of activist group Illegal Signs has spotted a re-erection of an illegal wall mural ordered removed by the city.

“Ohhh, it’s back,” he says, oblivious to the “H-O-O-O-O-N-K!!” of a delivery truck whose grille practically fills the car’s rear window. “I’ll call the inspector when I get home; let me mark that down.” Pulling out a notebook used to keep tabs on the city’s illegal signs-“bad boys” he calls them-he begins scribbling. Still leaning on his horn, the ticked-off trucker has a sign of his own for Tabello. It’s one the otherwise eagle-eyed activist fails to notice.

A slight, thirtysomething guy with an affinity for the word “dude” and what seems like the entire Toronto sign bylaw crammed inside his shaved head, Tabello has been waging war on what he regards as Public Space Enemy No. 1 since mid-February.

It should be stated up front that no one, not city councillors, not media buyers-even, when pressed, the outdoor companies themselves-denies the existence of illegal sign inventory. Bruce Baumann, managing director of OMD Canada and a board member with the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau (COMB), has penned a series of “state of the nation” articles on the out-of-home industry in recent years, and has asked suppliers to highlight some key issues facing the industry. The sharp rise in illegal signs, he says, is a common reply.

Some operators chalk it up to the cost of doing business in an increasingly competitive ad environment; others pin it on a few rogue companies they say are tarnishing the entire industry; still others claim it’s the product of an outdated sign bylaw that has failed to stay abreast of technological developments.

For Tabello, there are no mitigating circumstances. His 15-person group, an offshoot of the Toronto Public Space Committee, has quickly distinguished itself with its persistent nose-tweaking and detailed exposés of the industry’s misdeeds. “They’re patsies compared to us; they’re goody two-shoes,” says Tabello, taking a friendly shot at the TPSC. “They go around planting flowers, dude. We don’t plant flowers.”

What Illegal Signs is planting, Tabello says, is a seed of doubt within Canada’s $350-million out-of-home advertising industry. He claims to have the support of the public (“No one likes advertising, except people who work in the industry. No one likes it, dude” he insists) and, more importantly, city council. The signage companies, Toronto councillor Joe Mihevc agrees, have acted with “wanton disregard for the bylaw process.”

Tabello also has his detractors. Some, like Baumann, accuse him of “digging for minutia” while others says the daily claims made on his blog, illegalsigns.ca, are “baloney.” One anonymous tipster-actually, not entirely anonymous thanks to call display and the reverse search function on Canada 411-informed Marketing that Tabello is a professional gambler and questioned why donations to Illegal Signs are made payable directly to him. (Tabello says he receives about $50 a week in donations, used for upkeep of his website and to fund the research that is its backbone.)

Some seem to vacillate between admiration for Tabello’s resourcefulness and abhorrence of the “demeaning” “provocative” and “prejudicial” language he uses to castigate the outdoor industry. Many question why he doesn’t devote his energy to solving more pressing issues, like homelessness. “If we could fight homelessness by taking pictures of things and doing a blog, believe me, we’d do it,” he responds. “I’d love to fight homelessness, but what am I going to do, give a guy a doughnut?”

So far, there has been no formal response from the out-of-home industry to any of the assertions made by Illegal Signs. Rosanne Caron, president of the Toronto-based Out-of-home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), says the group has requested copies of the documents cited by Illegal Signs under the Freedom of Information Act, but won’t offer an official comment until they’ve been reviewed.

“What’s really important here is the OMAC member companies [which include CBS Outdoor Canada, Pattison Outdoor and Astral Media Outdoor] have been in business a long time,” says Caron. “They’re not companies that have just started up in the last year. They have a vested interest here in terms of working with the city to resolve any issues.” Another prominent member of the out-of-home community suggests companies may be reluctant to fight Tabello for fear of creating a “David and Goliath scenario” that can only make them look bad. (Indeed, a lawyer’s letter sent to Tabello on behalf of Clear Channel Outdoor Canada and subsequently posted on his blog was termed “reprehensible” by city councillor Pam McConnell.)

To Tabello, this reluctance to fight is further proof of their guilt. “This is an industry whose job it is to help companies get their message across; why can’t they get their message across?” he says. “I’m a guy sitting in a living room with a Hotmail address, and they can’t get their message across and I can? What’s their problem?”

Well, right now it’s dealing with the flurry of attacks from Tabello. As of early April, Illegal Signs had filed complaints against 320 signs on 270 Toronto properties. Purported transgressions range from signs too close to other signs, signs exceeding size limits, the erection of vinyl wall murals where permits had been granted only for hand-painted murals, to signs erected with no permit at all. He claims the city ordered 45 signs removed, but that 35 have already been re-erected. In a Jan. 23 letter from city clerk Ulli Watkiss, Tabello was informed that the large volume of requests for city records (625 access requests, she claimed) amounted to “an abuse of the right to access and has caused a burden” on city departments including Building, City Planning, Municipal Licensing and Standards and the Corporate Access and Privacy Office.

Undeterred, Tabello is now tackling Toronto’s massive coordinated street furniture project, which has Astral, CBS and Clear Channel all bidding on a 20-year contract to supply the city with everything from transit shelters and benches to public washrooms and garbage cans-most of which will bear advertising. “We’re trying to kill it,” he says. “It’s going to be difficult, but we think we might be able to.”

In an April 10 blog post, Tabello argued that an “untenable conflict of interest” involving Bob Millward-the former chief planner hired as project manager on the street furniture RFP-should end the selection process. Tabello alleged that while under contract to the city, Millward was brought in as a consultant by a property owner seeking to develop a Kramer Design sign. Kramer is the design consultant on Astral’s submission.

Alain Bergeron, vice-president of brand management and corporate communications for Astral Media Inc. says there’s “absolutely no conflict of interest whatsoever. Whatever mister Tabello is suggesting in his blog is a complete fabrication. Those allegations are completely false.”

There’s no denying Tabello’s pugnacity in his daily posts. “A culture of non-compliance with the law” is a favourite refrain, while others decry everything from the out-of-home industry’s “unconcealed disregard for legality” to “planning fraud.” Bureaucrats, too, have come under fire, with Tabello calling levelling charges of “incompetence” against city bylaw enforcers and even referring to them as “Keystone Kops.”

As you’d expect, the site is compelling reading, attracting around 500 visitors a day. And it’s not just public space advocates logging on. “Do I visit it daily? Absolutely,” says Jorg Cieslok, senior vice-president, general manager of Titan Outdoor Canada, a Toronto company specializing in large-format advertising that is a regular target of Tabello’s. “I have better things to do, but unfortunately I have to.”

For their part, the out-of-home companies insist they are “good corporate citizens” and that many of the violations cited by Tabello are the product of an outdated sign bylaw that has failed to stay abreast of technological developments in the fast-moving industry.

“We’re working at the speed of light in here sometimes,” says Cieslok. “The demands, the requests and so forth move along faster than policy does. Policy has not caught up with creativity…hasn’t caught up with the way of doing business. At the end of the day, we try to execute what our clients ask us to.”

Cieslok says Illegal Signs’ activity underscores the need for a new harmonized sign bylaw that covers the amalgamated city and addresses technological advancements. Mihevc agrees a new bylaw is necessary, but says that doesn’t justify companies putting up signs illegally. “It’s true we haven’t updated the bylaw, it’s true that the city has not fulfilled its responsibilities in this area, but it’s also true that the businesses have acted with wanton disregard for the bylaw process.”

Much of Tabello’s criticism is being directed at the vinyl wall murals that have largely supplanted hand-painted murals in the past decade. Where a hand-painted mural required literally weeks and $20,000 in production costs to erect, a vinyl mural can be put up in days for a fraction of the price.

“The vinyl companies have come out of the woodwork that slap these things up,” says Brian McLean, the former president of outdoor company Mediacom (now CBS Outdoor). “Do you want to spend $100,000 putting up a big superboard somewhere…or do you want to go and nail a piece of vinyl with a nice ad on it to a brick wall?

“All the perceived good locations, if you could get them at all, they would have been had by now,” he says. “When you see a big ad on another wall and say ‘Wow, I never noticed that before. You think somebody would have done that before.’ Well, they would have had it been legal.”

But while vinyl murals represent what Mihevc calls “the gritty end of advertising” he stresses that it’s an industry-wide problem. “It’s kind of shameful, but at this point even respected industry people are saying ‘The other guys are doing it,’ so they feel they have to do it,” he says.

Others, however, take umbrage at Tabello’s claims. Abcon Media president Les Abro says illegalsigns.ca contains “a hell of a lot of stuff that’s not accurate,” while McLean dismisses Tabello’s claim that half of the city’s outdoor inventory is illegal. “Where’s this stuff coming from?” he asks. “I know we were squeaky clean on this stuff. There could be the odd thing that has changed-where somebody got lights put on it and it shouldn’t have lights-but to say that 50% of the outdoor in Toronto is illegal, I think that’s outrageous. It’s just not possible.”

Of course, the group with the biggest say on where the industry goes from here is the advertisers. And while Illegal Signs says it has been successful in getting offending signs removed (some vendors, like Titan, say they’ve removed inventory voluntarily), it doesn’t appear to be curbing business. “They ask us what’s going on and we basically tell them what our situation is,” says Cieslok. “I believe that as long as one is being honest and upfront with the clients, it’s OK. Some clients may say ‘No, we’re not going to weather the storm’ and some may say ‘We don’t agree with the situation you’re in.”

Brenda Bookbinder, print portfolio director for media firm PHD Canada-which handles several major outdoor advertisers-says Tabello’s portrayal of the outdoor industry as villains is unfounded. Bookbinder says PHD has been told no “many, many, many times” by outdoor firms when it has enquired about spaces on a client’s behalf. “They come back all the time and say ‘No, you can’t get that,'” she says. “It’s not like you ask for it and they just go in the middle of the night and put a sign up there.”

Earlier, Tabello was driving along Richmond Street in the heart of the city’s entertainment district-ground zero for illegal sign activity, he claims. Pointing to a giant hand-painted wall sign for Bacardi, which he says may actually conform to city bylaws, Tabello concedes, almost sheepishly “I think it looks pretty cool actually.”

Score one for the big guys.

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